Everyday Intensity
Written by
Lisa Rivero
March 2010
Written by
Lisa Rivero
March 2010
A recent project of mine has been transcribing the diaries of my great aunt. Harriet wrote daily diary entries on the farms and ranches where she lived in Nebraska and South Dakota for over thirty-six years, from January 1, 1920 until 1957, one year before she died. I often wonder what kept her going all those years. What was she thinking as she dutifully recorded the weather, the work, the weariness and the wonderment of her days? For whom was she writing? I think I found a clue from the last sentence of her entry for March 21, 1932: "It is now spring so Meadow Larks sing in the snow." That is living with everyday intensity, taking the time to note what is extraordinary about ordinary life, paying enough attention to wonder at something that happens all the time (or at least every year), putting that wonder into words and recording those words as though they were as important as headline news because, in so many ways, they are. it is now spring so meadowlarks sing in the snow Here's another clue: Not always—in fact, not usually—but often enough to be noteworthy, Harriet was writing poetry in her diaries, the kind of poetry that looks intently at something small, something everyday, something already transforming into something else, and shows us its importance. Hers was a red wheelbarrow poetry: it is now spring so meadowlarks sing in the snow In the words of Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, "Plains speech, while nearly devoid of ‘-isms’ and ‘-ologies,’ tends toward the concrete and the personal: weather, the land, other people. Good language for a poet to hear.” Perhaps because there was far less for her to look at than in a city or a more lush environment, Harriet saw the value of what was in front of her: the “great big flakes" that "would melt as they struck earth." As Norris puts it, "The deprivations of the Plains … tend to turn small gifts into treasures." it is now spring so meadowlarks sing in the snow

This weekend brought to Milwaukee one of those flash spring snows that barely covers the emerging crocuses and daffodils, yet another small, fleeting treasure that I noticed more keenly because of the diary of a woman I never met. Perhaps that is motivation enough for someone reading this to keep noticing and to keep writing. ~ From Everyday Intensity

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  • Lisa Rivero

    Ami and Sandi, thank you so much! Ami, I also have always felt drawn to my family's history in a way that goes beyond usual curiosity. When my grandmother died and the grandchildren were deciding what remembrances they wanted, I chose her recipe cards (again, that touch of cursive that seems so quaint today) and her thread crochet hooks. I am realizing that I want to focus more of my writing on these kinds of historical things and thoughts, mainly because they fulfill me somehow, especially at this point in my life.

    Sandi, how wonderful that you have that poem from your great grandmother! Did she write other poems, too? I also wonder about how different our own children's and grandchildren's experiences of their family's past will be. Does a flash drive of emails (assuming there are even any undeleted emails to save) have the same meaning as those yellowed letters and diary pages?

    Something I want to try to capture in words at some point is how I've tried to keep a journal off and on my whole life, but I always, at some point, feel that what I've written is embarrassing or not worth keeping, and I throw it away after only a few days. The answer for me might be to do what Harriet did: Start with the weather, move to the day's work, and let the rest take care of itself.

  • Sandi Johnson

    How wonderful!

    I have a small collection of letters from my grandparents & a few from my great Grandmother. It's amazing the clarity of what they wrote to each other. So much was conveyed in a simple sentence or commentary. Sometimes I wonder if all of our modern technology is a good thing or bad. I read through those letters thinking, "Ya know, these folks knew what was really important in their lives." They weren't distracted by all the "shiney ball" stuff we have these days.

    I have a poem my great Grandmother wrote later in life. It is so simple. Just a view of what she saw from her window - children playing outside. But she noticed so many small details - the print of a little girl's dress, the color of a boy's shoes. When I read your description of "everyday intensity," that poem immediately came to mind.

    Sometimes I think ordinary writing, like my family's letters, your aunt's diaries, is something of a dead art today. People don't keep diaries like that anymore. They don't write handwritten letters anymore. Our future generations will be left with hard drive copies of our emails to each other, not weathered yellow paper in scrawling hand. What a shame.

    Sometimes I think our past generations knew something we didn't - the importance of giving future generations a realistic glimpse of their lives so people could have a sense of their past. Makes me wonder what kind of sense my great grandkids will have of my life & their past.

    Gee, where'd I put that old diary of mine?

  • Ami Hanna

    I am from Montana, a geological and linguistic neighbor to South Dakota. Everything you have written here resonates with my heart. I have always had an intense interest in family bibles, boxes of black and white pictures, handwritten letters in cursive writing, and especially old journals. As a child, I would question my great grandmother to have her to reveal the day to day details of what life was like for her "at my age". I think I was wishing for her to tell me a magical fairy tale, and what I got was a basic ordinary description of life on the farm. Now that I am older, "life on the farm" is the magical fairy tale. You have a very eloquent way of expressing this everyday intensity. :) What a beautiful gift you have uncovered in these red wheelbarrow words!